Decoding Jan Shakti at National Gallery of Modern Art -There is no Schindler’s List! Sandip K Luis

This post originally appeared on social media and refers to the on-going Jan Shakti exhibition at National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Delhi, which according to its description, displayed “works of India’s top artists on themes covered in Mann Ki Baat such as Swachhata, water conservation, agriculture, space, India’s northeast, Nari Shakti, Yoga, and Ayurveda.”

For some days now, certain videos and photos of PM Narendra Modi, the authoritarian Supreme Leader now ruling one-sixth of the world’s population, have been circulating on social media. He is seen visiting the new exhibition ‘Jan Shakti: A Collective Power’ at NGMA dedicated to his propagandist radio programme Mann Ki Baat.

About a week ago, an uproar, however scattered, erupted on social media when this exhibition, guest-curated by Alka Pande, was opened to the public since the occasion also witnessed the presence and participation of some of the celebrated personalities of the Indian artworld. To name some of them, since they would be recorded in history’s hall of shame – Atul Dodiya, Vibha Galhotra, Riyas Komu, Ashim Purkayastha, G.R. Iranna, Thukral and Tagra, Manjunath Kamath, Jagannath Panda and  Kiran Nadar in her role as the “adviser” to the exhibition. Almost all of these luminaries and “top artists” (as it is reported in the media) again appeared when the PM visited the show, proudly posing for a photo with him.

New Delhi, May 14 (ANI): Prime Minister Narendra Modi poses for a photograph with a group while visiting Jana Shakti, an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi on Sunday. (ANI Photo)

Others have pointed out that each of the thematics specified against each participant relates to the present government’s ideological vision and its many administrative schemes, and thus the artistes are in effect endorsing the ideological vision of a majoritarian state.  Complementing such  observations, I would like to present a different picture, focusing on the figure of the art philanthropist, now indispensable to almost every artworld’s functioning, and the ‘dark matter’ of labour surrounding/enabling this figure. Contrary to the immersive power of ‘fascinating fascism’, everything is scattered and fragmented, tediously durational and prosaic, in this image of the present.

Why is such a shift in focus  important? For we all in the artworld still seem to believe, in one way or the other, in Schindler’s List—the gloomy yet soothing bedtime story about a cunning but good industrialist saving a list of chosen people whom he would rescue from the genocide-to-come (cultural or otherwise). The Schindler here is Nadar, but it could be a Tata, Vadehra, Ambani or even Adani (the last is apparently the trustee of the upcoming Serendipity complex in Delhi). And unlike the original Schindler-the lonely-adventurist, this new figure should be understood as a collective entity—not just as a family name and the actual family involved in the propagation of its name, but also as a node in the network between different family enterprises where co-existence and co-evolution are more important than mutual competition (the instinctual behaviour of the proverbial capitalist which is now historically obsolete).

Unless the mechanisms of accountability are set in place from below, the resultant mega-institutions might be the beginning of a new oligarchy in the subcontinental art scene. Every instance of their compromise, including the NGMA exhibition or the Hindu sadhus attending the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC)  Gala in Mumbai, could be read as an occasion of necessary pragmatism and diplomacy in the present political situation, of which immediate effects would be reversed and remedied in the longer run. Or, one might arrive at the unnerving conclusion that what we are witnessing today is in fact the last lap in the long march of neoliberalism in Indian art which is now reaching its climax in the monopolization/centralization of power—a power that is cultural, political, and economical at once.

But this new spectacle of power, most obscenely prefigured in the recent NMACC opening, is just a façade. For beneath this image of a centralized/monopolized power, what we see are the signs of disintegration and instability—the difficulty cultural practitioners face in  creating durable and inclusive forms of collectivity, the inability to form unions at workplaces, the absence of a free public forum for fearlessly exchanging ideas and information, the unavailability of proper mechanisms to address labour and sexual exploitation, etc. This is the exhausted and distressed ‘dark matter’ of the artworld (to borrow Gregory Sholette’s expression), supporting the sheen and glittery art spectacles invisibly, from the inside.

What we saw at NGMA was an implosion of the contemporary Indian artworld, where the names Thukral and Tagra,  Dodiya, and Komu, critically celebrated for their ‘subversive’ art, would appear along with the likes of the ‘superficial’ Paresh Maity, Anjolie Ela Menon, and Alka Pande. This is the true contemporaneity of contemporary art where everyone, the lampooned and the reputed, shares the same time and place at zero distance, a fictive space-time tesseract with no easy distinction between depth and surface. The reason behind their betrayal, (or maybe the audacity to finally be open about their regressive politics), is very simple. As the day of the deluge and cleansing is near, one might desperately try every means to enter the list of the chosen ones prepared by the new artworld oligarchs and to board Modi’s Ark. Those who are left behind might perish forever.

Or, we should make our own little arks, as many as possible, as quick as possible. The Schindler in your bedtime stories could be the real bogeyman.

Sandip K Luis is a researcher and artist based in Delhi

One thought on “Decoding Jan Shakti at National Gallery of Modern Art -There is no Schindler’s List! Sandip K Luis”

  1. It’s unfortunate that the artists of National importance can not avoid a trap of Modi- Right-wing Propaganda. The people, the artists and art lovers will be confused ….are these all participants are really proud to be part of Jana Shakti Exhibition…people like us are disappointed to see few of the participants are completely ambitious and compromising. They should have rejected to be with Modi- mouth Man ki baat gimiks….history will not forgive Narandra Modi for destroying the idea of India…destroying the spirit of cultural diversity…who is least bothered about art and culture as once he said that the gifted art works to him had no use which he auctioned later. We …the art world should stand straight to be the people of different thinking.


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